Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Moderne Take on a Ghost Story

Opera Moderne calls itself "[a] boutique opera company offering intimate, beautiful and unique performances." It was founded in 2011 by Rebecca Greenstein, one of the original founders of Opera Manhattan. (In the interest of full disclosure this reporter must divulge that he has been very much involved with Opera Manhattan in an administrative capacity during the past year.)  Opera Moderne has built a crack marketing and development team, and based on Saturday's performance of Mr. Britten's The Turn of the Screw at Symphony Space's Peter Norton Theatre, it appears they have a crack artistic team as well.

Anna Noggle
The Turn of the Screw is Britten's 1954 setting of the Henry James novella of the same name, about a young, inexperienced governess entrusted with the charge of two children in an isolated country house with a mysterious past.  Knowing the venue, I had assumed this would be a semi-staged concert performance, but I was wrong. Although the stage space was reduced by more than half by the orchestra, which spent most of its time behind a scrim, director Luke Leonard made efficient use of the space available. The actual set was comprised of a school room desk, a bench, and a spinet piano with bench, all before the scrim.  Gangways just upstage (elevated) and downstage of the orchestra were used cleverly, especially when making use of the scrim to differentiate between living and dead characters.  The only thing I wasn't sure about was having the scrim raised a few times--perhaps to break the veil between living and dead? The use of mime doubles for Quint and Miss Jessel seemed like an otherwise clever staging concept gone too far.

I can not sing the praises of the cast highly enough.  Most notable was the Governess of Anna Noggle, about whom I've written in glowing terms before.  Her singing was beautiful throughout, showing expressive range and color where appropriate, and she inhabited the character of the Governess quite effectively.  From the innocent young girl full of doubts to the young woman who knows more than she wants to and becomes slightly unwound, Miss Noggle never disappointed. She and Mr. Leonard left the distinction between fact and fantasy, the boundary between sanity and insanity, deliberately unclear, for the audience to reason for themselves.

The Miles of young Benjamin P. Wenzelberg was astounding.  His singing was beautiful, which is of course a given, and his acting was quite powerful, either as a normal, mischievous boy or as the eerie, zombie-like agent of Peter Quint.  Using the name Benjamin Perry, this was the Amahl in Chelsea Opera's 2009 Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was actually my first review.  I noted at that time that there seemed a noticeable break between head and chest registers, but it appears that has been worked out.  Flora, young sister of Miles, was sung and acted quite effectively by grownup soprano Vivian Krich-Brinton.  She and young Mr. Wenzelberg had a lovely chemistry on stage, and reacted well to each other.  In the moments when they moved in unison, they were quite effective.

Glenn Seven Allen
Glenn Seven Allen sang Peter Quint well, although I think he went a little too far on occasion in coloring some exclamatory statements. Possibly from the musical theater background that seems to dominate his bio. Julia Teitel's Mrs. Grose was very well sung and acted. Elspeth Davis sang better than I have ever heard her.

Conductor and Music Director Pacien Mazzagatti deserves praise for wrangling the pick-up orchestra effectively.  With the exception of a few tuning issues in the strings, they seemed to play rather well together.  They seemed well rehearsed, which is a rarity, small opera company budgets being what they are.  Costumes by Angela Huff and hair and makeup by Miss Greenstein also deserve praise.

Minor quibbles.  I'm not a big fan of using titles for opera in English, but if doing so, please rehearse with them.  'nuff said.  UPDATE:  I was reminded that Symphony Space required performing organizations use its own union A/V team, which explains the chaotic supertitles.  Opera Moderne personnel hijacked the supertitle function after halftime, and they were much better.

Also, I have a few fierce words for the audience member who shattered the final moments of the opera by shouting "Bravo!" a few moments too soon, while the rest of us were stunned by Miss Noggle's last utterances and needed those few moments to begin breathing again.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

You shore got a purty mouth!

I was thrilled to learn the Met was to revive its beautiful 1978 production of Mr. Britten's masterpiece Billy Budd, based on Mr. Melville's novella of the same name.  Imagine my dismay upon learning the only available ticket I could afford was a partial view seat on the far right of the Family Circle.  (It is a mystery to me why the Met doesn't shower me with offers of comps for all its productions, considering how lovingly I have written about that noble company.)  Imagine my delight when I whined about this on Facebook, like you do, and almost immediately heard from another friend with a spare ticket to the final dress rehearsal!  What an emotional roller coaster this opera proved to be, even before the first downbeat from highly capable conductor David Robertson.

I had seen this production in 1992, I believe. The production was by John Dexter, designed by William Dudley.  My strongest memory of seeing the show at that time was the chorus "Now is the moment", when the entire cast girds their loins for a battle against a French ship within its sights (the setting is 1797, when, quel surprise!, the British were fighting the French), and the pre-Lepage machinery (which worked flawlessly **cough cough**) caused the expandable HMS Indomitable, like a current-day toy space ship/race car/Malibu Barbie beach house, to expand to its fullest extent in the largest nautical erection you will see this side of the USS Intrepid Museum.

Daszak, Gunn, Croft
Photo by Ken Howard
 © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
There!  I've said it!  Because it was Benjamin Britten writing for Peter Pears, and because the libretto is by E.M. Forster (along with Eric Crozier), and because the source is Herman Melville, and because we're talking about the British Navy, all anyone can think about is the butt sex. (Would you'd rather I'd made a crude pun about seamen?) Dissertations have been written about why Claggart hates Billy Budd so, and it ain't because Billy is pure in heart.   One of those deep quotes that makes the rounds of Facebook ad nauseam (yes, my second Facebook reference in one post) suggests hate is a result of feeling powerless.  Claggart must surely think Billy's goodness gains him power against which he, Claggart, can't compete.  Even more complex is Captain Vere's love for Billy, which on the surface seems a paternal affection.  Your faithful reporter is approaching the half-century mark himself and has fond, avuncular relationships with a number of dear lads, so we won't delve very deeply into that.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  Billy himself? Thomas May's program notes quote Mr. Forster himself: "It is a difficult thing...the ordinary lovable (and hateable) human beings connected with immensities through the tricks of art. Billy is our Savior, yet he is Billy, not Christ or Orion."

The performance itself, you ask? Honestly, the singing and acting in all cases were so fine that I actually spent more time thinking about the story, the symbolism, the music.  I wished I had a score* and had studied it deeply. (Frankly, I wished I had the vocal and acting chops to sing the role of Captain Vere!) I was so focused on the Iago/Scarpia archetype in Claggart (I wouldn't have been surprised had he sung "Billy, mi fai dimenticare Iddio" at the end of his soliloquy), the Pontius Pilate archetype of Vere (ditto Pilate's Dream from Jesus Christ Superstar), and the Christ-like archetype of Billy. Vere's struggle between the duty he has loved and served all his life and the longing to save Billy is the central conflict of the opera.

John Daszak as Captain Vere
NY Times photo by Chang W. Lee
Nathan Gunn, even with his shirt on for the entire opera, gave an admirable performance as Billy Budd. His singing was beautiful, and he acted the naive, earnest, inherently good sailor convincingly. James Morris sang and acted Claggart well enough to elicit hisses at the curtain call, and my only real criticism is that there is no "ore" in the word "honor". As Captain Vere, John Daszak made an impressive Met debut. His large, bright tenor handled the vocal challenges well, and in acting the challenging role of Captain Vere, let us just say that scenery was chewed.  I would gladly pay to hear and see him again.

It's not easy to keep track of the smaller roles. I have written in glowing terms before about the handsome Elliot Madore, and he again impressed as The Novice's Friend. (Is that how the poor lad is forced to list it on his resume?) The Novice himself was portrayed with a light, plaintive vocal quality and a palpable misery by Keith Jameson. The three officers Mr. Flint, Mr. Redburn and Lieutenant Ratcliffe (or as I like to call them, Patty, Maxine and Laverne) were nobly portrayed by Kyle Ketelson, Dwayne Croft and Ryan McKinny.  Squeak, Mr. Claggart's henchman, was squeaked by Scott Scully. Met veterans Allan Glassman and John Cheek deserve praise for their portrayals of Red Whiskers, an impressed man, and Dansker, and older, wiser seaman.

Once again, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus deserves accolades as passionate as anyone else on stage--much more passionate than some I've seen on that stage. The men of the chorus, along with supplemental members and boys of the children's chorus, gave a stunning performance of Mr. Britten's challenging music. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the aforementioned David Robertson, also met the extremely high standard we have come to expect from them.

I was delighted to run into dear Lucy, who posted her impressions about the opera before I did.  Paul also posted his before I did. Glad to finally read them, now that I've finished this, and see that we all have similar opinions about the performance and production.

*Did you know the piano-vocal score retails for for over $100?!  Sheesh!